10,000 Rohingya families left destitute by huge fire at refugee camp

March 24, 2021

The aftermath of the massive fire that ripped through Balukhali camp in the Cox’s Bazar district of Bangladesh has left 10,000 families without shelter, food, or possessions. And least 15 people are dead and 400 are still unaccounted for. The Concern team based in the area has been responding.

Devastation

The fire started on Monday afternoon and quickly spread through the makehift shelters and tents that form one of the many camps spread across the hilly terrain in the very south of Bangladesh, near the border with Myanmar. Nearly a million refugees live in the area.

The flames consumed almost everything, including the personal belongings of refugees as well as essential facilities such as hospitals, primary health facilities, learning centers, and women friendly spaces in the camps. Teams on the ground say the scale and intensity of the fire is unlike anything seen before in the camps.

Fire at Rohingya camp

Residents of the Balukhali refugee camp watch as thousands of shelters burn.

While fire services and civil defense, emergency and response teams and aid agencies rushed to the area, their efforts were hampered by the presence of perimeter fencing. In some instances, refugees themselves cut through the fence to escape the fire. Limited mobile phone connectivity in the camps also hampered the ability of refugees to call for immediate assistance and contact their families. It also continues to limit the coordination of the aid response.

Refugee volunteers are playing an invaluable role in the response. They are the first responders, helping people to safety, supporting fire response efforts and continue to work to support aid efforts on the ground.

At least 15 people died in the fire and as many as 400 are still unaccounted for.

A young boy amid the wreckage of his home, destroyed on the March 22nd fire in Balukhali camp.

A young boy amid the wreckage of his home, destroyed on the March 22nd fire in Balukhali camp. Photo: Concern Worldwide

“The children were covered in soot and hungry”

Concern Worldwide’s Emergency Director, Heather Macey, described the scene as one of utter devastation. “Where yesterday there were bamboo shelters covering the hillside, today it was unrecognizable. In the 4 worst affected camps more than 10,000 homes are destroyed.”

Heather describes meeting Hasina, a grandmother, was sheltering with 3 elderly relatives, her daughter, and new-born granddaughter, and 3 other grandchildren left only with a pot and a blanket that they were using for the shade. “The children were covered in soot and hungry. They were confused what to do and what was going to happen.”

Heather says the Rohingya families here have endured much trauma. “Many people experienced their villages burnt to the ground in Myanmar in the offensive that resulted in the influx across the border to Bangladesh in 2017.”

Men look at burning village in Myanmar

Refugees in Cox’s Bazar watch fires burning across the border in their home country of Myanmar in 2017. Photo: Kieran McConville

Responding

The Government of Bangladesh is coordinating the response efforts on the ground with support from NGOs and UN through the sectors. Initial needs assessments have been completed and more detailed assessments are ongoing.

Concern and our national partner Social Assistance and Rehabilitation for the Physically Vulnerable (SARPV) have been providing food, water and a safe place to rest at the local nutrition site as a temporary reprieve. A major effort is now under way to help the affected families rebuild their homes and replace their lost belongings. Aid agencies are also monitoring the safety conditions of refugees to mitigate risks, as they remain vulnerable to incidents of theft, harassment, and exploitation. Another priority for authorities and humanitarian actors will be to replace personal identity documentation lost in the fire.

Emneergency response in Rohingya camp

Concern and SARPV staff prepare to distribute emergency aid to fire victims at Balukhali camp. Photo: Concern Worldwide

The needs are vast, according to Heather Macey. “Drinking water, food, and shelter are priority. The toilets and water points are destroyed and need to be restored as soon as possible and in addition protection and safety concerns including reuniting families, supporting lost children need to be addressed. Temporary shelter is needed now — but with monsoon season due in the next few weeks a more permanent solution is needed quickly.”

Concern is working with the government, camp managers, and through the humanitarian coordination sectors to respond where needed immediately. We are appealing for help from the public to support the recovery effort.

Current Activities:

  • Providing food and water to 20,000 households as immediate needs
  • Providing protective masks to volunteers for fire clean-up activities

We are to preparing to:

  • Provide household necessities
  • Provide technical engineering staff to work in shelter replacement

We are planning to start:

  • Hot food community kitchens
  • Counseling and support services through psychosocial support staff.